Two Cheers for Curmudgeons

I first learned the word curmudgeon from Keith Yandel, my philosophy adviser at The University of Wisconsin-Madison. He may have been referring to Kant, although I have heard he was, at times, a funny (if not fun-loving) philosopher. The Oxford On-line Dictionary defines curmudgeon as:

A bad-tempered or surly person.

This captures the impatient, fussy, and even outraged tone of curmudgeonhood, but is constricted and unfair. A curmudgeon is not merely someone in a bad mood (although I have been in a bad mood since entering first grade). Thus, I offer this definition:

One undaunted by fashion and unwilling to accede to acedia or to coddle the complacent and who fears not being acerbic or humorous in so doing.

Being a philosopher and curmudgeon (my old blog was named, The Constructive Curmudgeon), I come to praise curmudgeons as well as to be curmudgeonly concerning curmudgeons.

My first cheer is that curmudgeons are not cowed by popular culture or received nostrums. They abhor “homo up-to-datum” (Daniel Borstein) and seek to shine unfashionable light on those blinded by digital darkness—even if it hurts their unfocused eyes. As Simone Weil wrote, “To be relevant, one must speak of eternal things.” Thus, “One undaunted by fashion and unwilling to accede to acedia or to coddle the complacent and who fears not being acerbic or humorous in so doing” (to quote myself), will, if needed, critique what is taken for granted today, such as PowerPoint, Wikipedia, Google, bad religion, and (always) television. At best, and rarely, a curmudgeon may be a prophet of sorts, speaking truth to power, prestige, and popular delusions. The canonical prophet, Amos, was in a divinely-inspired bad mood when he said this.

Hear this word, you cows of Bashan on Mount Samaria,
you women who oppress the poor and crush the needy
and say to your husbands, “Bring us some drinks!” (Amos 4:1).

And he goes on. High society fashion meant nothing to the caustic Amos.

Perhaps a curmudgeon, at her best, is a prophet without the prophetic mantle of revealed religion. I take Neil Postman—especially in Amusing Ourselves to Death—to have been to have been curmudgeonly prophetic in his secular analysis of the cultural implications of a world wired for instant information. Francis Schaeffer (1912-1984) was Christian social critic—and much more. He could be stern, but never bellicose. Perhaps he was a bit of a curmudgeon in his weariness with worldliness in the church and godlessness in the culture. He was prophetic, to be sure.

A second cheer wells up in my throat: curmudgeons are morally courageous in their critiques of commonplaces. Sticklers for grammar (prescriptivists), for instance, are pilloried as linguistic prigs and snobs and as reactionaries and rebels against the present and future by nearly-anything-goes descriptivists. Opponents abound, and may be uncivil. Grammarians are unbowed and perhaps even empowered by such jabs.

I may be stretching the definition too far, but Lynn Truss is a good-natured and funny curmudgeon concerning commas, semicolons, colons, and all things of punctuation. While reading Eats, Shoots and Leaves (notice the ambiguity caused by the omission of the Oxford comma), you learn much, laugh a lot, and want to imitate her way of being a stickler. She is a constructive curmudgeon.

More seriously, a curmudgeon may take on moral and cultural matters in order to unmask ethical pretense and posturing. There is none better than Os Guinness. Haddon Robinson, writing in Christianity Today, once called Guinness “a professional curmudgeon.” At the time, I was offended by this, since it seemed to label Guinness as a bit of a cultural and theological fussbudget. That, Os Guinness is not. While he does not bear fools gladly, he is kind if insistent, offering critique and constructive insights from a deeply biblical perspective. He is our greatest living Evangelical social critic and a man of deep conviction, talent, and courage.

The cheers stop at two. Some curmudgeons (including myself) need to hear a critique and a reprimand. While reading Robert Hartwell Fiske (d. 2016), who had penchant for rude titles, such as The Dimwit’s Dictionary, I discover both a sharp sense of grammar and style and a mean spirit. In Silence, Language, and Society: A Guide to Style, Meaning, Grace, and Compassion, Fiske shows little compassion on those he criticizes (or savages). He is frequently caustic and always unforgiving. He knows his enemies (all descriptivists and especially Merriam-Webster dictionaries, which are descriptivist) but does not try to make them his friends. As the Apostle Paul wrote (in the best of style), “love rejoices in the truth.” It cannot rejoice in falsehood or even in mediocrity of spirit in all its implications. But Paul begins his love definition in 1 Corinthians 13 by writing, “Love is patient and kind. It is not arrogant or boastful.” Curmudgeons can be patient and kind, even in their surliness, but only if that surliness (vis-à-vis Amos, John the Baptist, and Jesus) is sanctified in virtue.

Therefore, to all the curmudgeons who are undaunted by fashion, morally courageous, and critical without being cruel, I must shout out three cheers. But most of us get only two (at best). May God have mercy on all curmudgeons.

Principles for Pastoring Animals

A pastor cares for his or her flock by tender concern, prayer, and insight into his parishioners. But one may be pastoral without being called to be a pastor of a church. I know a young man who graduated from Denver Seminary who has never held a pastoral position, but who is more pastoral with friends, family, and strangers than most pastors I know. He recently befriended a lonely man dying from a neurological disease and continued to pastor him until his death. Matt is a pastoral non-pastor. Sadly, we find non-pastoral pastors. I will argue that ordinary Christians can be pastors to animals. Certainly, there are no paid positions in this field, but life is bigger than a salary.

An old stanza from old poem by Frances Alexander sets the tone:

All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful,
The Lord God made them all.

Animals and humans were created by God to live together in harmony. Of course the fall and the flood changed all that, but all the living kinds that God created remain good, as Genesis 1 teaches. Paul the Apostle, of course, agrees:

For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer (1 Timothy 4:4-5).

The Bible tells us that humans alone bear the image of God (Genesis 1:26), and that this image remains after the fall (Genesis 9). Since man is the image of God, it cannot be irradiated. This hard break between humans and the rest of God’s creation does not imply that men and women can treat animals anyway they wish. Animals are not mere fodder for human whims.

Along with all creation, animals are owned by God and display aspects of God’s character. God invokes his design of the animal kingdom in answering Job from the whirlwind (Job 38-42). Our Lord, Jesus Christ, tells us to consider God’s care for creatures:

Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they (Matthew 6:26).

Humans have more value than the birds, but that does not imply that the birds have no value. If they lacked value, Jesus teaching would fall flat. God commanded ravens to bring Elijah food while he was in an area east of the Jordan River (1 Kings 17:4-6).

God has made a covenant with all of creature, not merely humans. As he told Moses:

Behold, I establish my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the cattle, and every beast of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark (Genesis 9:9-10).

Both man and beast are accountable to God and recipients of his grace.

Through the prophet Hosea, God further promises a future covenant for the animal creation.

In that day I will make a covenant for them with the beasts of the field, the birds in the sky and the creatures that move along the ground. Bow and sword and battle I will abolish from the land, so that all may lie down in safety (Hosea 2:18).

Without developing a whole theology of the animal world, I offer a few principles for how Christians can show pastoral concern to animals, whether or not they interact with them regularly and directly.

First, animals deserve prayer. As God’s creatures, we should desire their well-being in relation to our own flourishing. Sometimes animals must be sacrificed for human good. The Creator gave us dominion over them (Genesis 1:28; Psalm 8) and they do not have rights equal to our own. Yet the dog, the horse, the pig, the lion, the elephant are part of the company of the living.

For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time (Romans 8:19-22).

There are here intimations that animals will be part “the freedom and glory of the kingdom of God,” but I will not pursue that. Suffice to say that the frustration of creation calls out for prayer for the repairing of the world.

I often pray for my friend’s horses, my dog, other pets, and wild animals. My prayer is expanding to cover the global plight of many animals, particularly dogs that are abused in puppy farms and through dog fighting. Animals used for food are often kept in painful conditions before their slaughter. I am no vegetarian, but this needles cruelty finds no justification in a Christian worldview. The animal scientist Temple Grandin has developed humane ways to treat such animals. These examples, and myriad others, are issues of justice. While we cannot side with activist groups such as PETA, who deem animals as valuable as humans, we can work and pray for the human treatment of animals. I commend the Human Society and pray for them and their work. We may also offer prayers of thanksgiving because circuses no longer exploit elephants, creatures too noble to be mere means to human entertainment.

Second, an animal pastor works to strengthen the animal-human bond and to honor the death of beloved animals. Pets are now often put down in their owner’s homes, so the farewell may be less traumatic than in a clinical setting. Several years ago, I went to the home of a young couple who called the vet to euthanize their storied dog, Emma, who had lung cancer. I said goodbye to Emma (who waged her tail when I entered the house) and with her owners. It was a pastoral visit. Many who lose their pets feel ashamed to grieve so strongly for animal or think they must endure this alone. This ought not to be. An animal pastor helps shepherd this communion of beings through life’s terrible transition to death. I show affection to the dog, thanking him or her for her life. I look into their eyes. Of course, I express consolation to the owners and pray with them before or after the sad event. And I keep them in my prayers. Sending a consolation card to the bereaved is a loving gesture also.

After the death of a friend’s dog in 2011, I wrote the following prayer, which I often send to those in a similar situation.


Prayer for One Grieving Over the Loss of a Pet

I said in mine heart, God shall judge the righteous and the wicked: for there is a time there for every purpose and for every work.
I said in mine heart concerning the estate of the sons of men, that God might manifest them, and that they might see that they themselves are beasts.
For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them: as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath; so that a man hath no preeminence above a beast: for all is vanity.
All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again.
Who knoweth the spirit of man that goeth upward, and the spirit of the beast that goeth downward to the earth?
Wherefore I perceive that there is nothing better, than that a man should rejoice in his own works; for that is his portion: for who shall bring him to see what shall be after him?—Ecclesiastes 3:17-22, King James Version.

Oh Creator of all living things, and Giver of every good and perfect gift, we thank you for the gift of living creatures. You have made each thing according to its kind, each finds its place in your creation. You have given us dominion over the earth and put living things into our care, including our pets. We thank you for these animal friends, and while we know they cannot provide the fellowship given by members of our own kind, we thank you for the love and joy that comes from these fellow creatures.

We ask you now to comfort the master of a beloved pet who has gone the way of all flesh. All the living will likewise die, and the death of one of your image-bearers is far more consequential than that of a dog or cat. Yet the master grieves the loss of an animal companion, one put in his or her care. Fond memories of pet’s can last a lifetime. We ask that the manifold sorrows of this veil of tears not overwhelm the master, that life without their beloved pet would find healing and that the memories of this unique creature would bring happiness and consolation even in light of the bitterness of loss.

In the name of Jesus Christ, the Great Shepherd of the Sheep.

Amen.


Third, an animal pastor blesses animals. He is benedictory. I have written on the philosophical meaning of benediction elsewhere on my blog, and it is vexing to encapsulate. A benediction is somewhere between a command and a wish. “May you find peace,” is a benediction. In the Anglican liturgy, members of the congregation greet each other by saying “The people of the Lord,” after the confession of sin and assurance of pardon. In the Bible, a benediction endeavors to confer divine well-being on a person, family, or nation. Consider this passage:

Now may the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen (Hebrews 13:20-21).

Since animals partake of God’s covenants, and since they are given to us a good creations, we should bless them; that is, we, in a holy state of mind full of love, should desire their best. I cannot resist another anecdote.

Recently I was asked contribute to a video project on the subject of the biblical equality between men and women—a subject my wife and I have written and spoken of much in the last two decades. When entering the house, I first greeted my old friends who were sponsoring the project. But I then noticed a diminutive white ball of dog fluff named Abbie, who, I was told, was advanced in years. Abbie had a slight limp, but was friendly and affable. I greeted her by holding her head in my hands, getting down to her level, and blessing her. We hit it off. During my 45-minute interview, Abbie lay down next to me and relaxed (off camera, sadly). When finished with the interview, I said goodbye to my human hosts. But Abbie was stranded underneath about ten feet away underneath a step too high for her to surmount. She looked balefully at me with anticipation. We reunited and said goodbye. The hosts remarked that she did not act that way with other strangers to the house. I know why. I was her chaplain.

The Roman Catholics developed a liturgy for “the blessing of the animals.” Although I am a loyal Protestant, the Catholics have us beat on this. Catholics observe the blessing of pets and animals on October 4, the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, or on a Sunday nearest that date. I take the following from an on-line article, “Blessing of Animals” by Kevin E. Mackin, O.F.M.

At Franciscan churches, a friar with brown robe and white cord often welcomes each animal with a special prayer. The Blessing of Pets usually goes like this:

Blessed are you, Lord God, maker of all living creatures. You called forth fish in the sea, birds in the air and animals on the land. You inspired St. Francis to call all of them his brothers and sisters. We ask you to bless this pet. By the power of your love, enable it to live according to your plan. May we always praise you for all your beauty in creation. Blessed are you, Lord our God, in all your creatures! Amen.

Even if Protestant church do not adopt this practice (maybe a few have), the sentiments are applicable to any Christian’s relationships to pets and other animals.

My theology of animals and how to pastor them is inchoate, but it is growing the more I observe and reflect on the animal kingdom all around us. Consider applying these three principles to your life with the creatures outside your species but under God’s care.

First Principles of Technogesis

These are the numbers of the men armed for battle who came to David at Hebron to turn Saul’s kingdom over to him, as the Lord had said. . . . from Issachar, men who understood the times and knew what Israel should do—200 chiefs, with all their relatives under their command (2 Chronicles 12:23, 32).


My computer did not recognize the word technogesis in the title. As a term of art, it escapes ordinary dictionaries. In fact, I may have invented it! Technology plus exegesis (or interpretation) forms the heady neologism. I define it thus:

Technogesis: the skill of understanding the nature and effects of technological artifacts and technological systems in relation to humans, culture, and nature.

Humans are tool-using creatures. Of course, other species also use tools; crab-eating macaques, Capuchin monkeys, and crows are just three examples. Yet, humans have no peers in the created order. And their capacity to develop tools is accelerating at an alarming pace. With the ascent of electronic technologies (electronic lights, telegrams, radio), human tools crossed a threshold, especially as they were electrified and mass-produced.

Before the telegraph, information traveled no faster than a steam-powered train. Before then, smoke signals could be seen over a broad distance, but they said little and vanished in a puff of smoke. The radio and telephone isolated the human voice (and other sounds) from a full-orbed environment even as they extended the reach of the voice far beyond its unaided ability. To invoke Neil Postman, these changes are not additive, but ecological: they alter the systems of culture. A few televisions are a novelty. Most people do fine without them. But when television becomes an integral part of life, with TVs displacing pianos and radios in the living room, television become a phenomenon, a taken-for-granted element of life, which becomes and remains unquestioned. Thinking technogetically helps us grasp the effects that technology has on human culture and provides insight here. Consider television briefly

People tend to watch more than they read. National and international news must be shaped to fit the limits of television. Politicians must be presentable on television to be elected. Abraham Lincoln—great in spirit, but ugly in face—would have won no primaries. He was not photographic, but that mattered little at the time since images were not widely distributed. But today, being telegenic is highly valuable for presidential candidates. Read the luminous and pellucid prose of Neal Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death on the ecological effects of television in education, politics, religion, and more. Groucho Marx said he found television quite educational. When he walked into a room with the television on he left and read a book. One could go on about the boob tube, but take another example: the Polaroid camera.

The novelty of this camera was that it took and developed photographs by itself. It delivered its image instantly. There was no need to send film in the mail to be developed and have it sent back, a process that took several weeks (as I remember). The image quality was inferior to many other cameras, but its immediacy made if popular for several decades. The advertising slogan captured its allure: “The camera does the rest”—the title of a new book about its fame and digital defeat. Because my mother (who lived far-away in Anchorage, Alaska, and never owned a computer) wanted more photographs of her son and daughter-in-law, she sent us a Polaroid camera. Her logic was impeccable. Polaroid photographs are easier to take than the non-instant alternatives. Sadly, this didn’t improve our picture-taking habits appreciably; but I kept the little-used camera in its original box. It still works. Today I took three shots, two for a friend and one for myself. But why bring this up?

How we create and share images forms us, usually unconsciously, but decisively. Technogesis asks how this works out in our minds and culture. When I took a photo of Morgan recently in a breakfast restaurant, I had to haul out a rather large object (compared with a smart phone) depress a real button (not touch a screen), and wait for the film to appear amidst the fanfare of that distinctive Polaroid sound (one of its most endearing qualities). Then we waited about fifteen minutes for the film to develop while in a black pouch. Because these actions are slow and deliberate—because things can go wrong because of the steps involved—they add weight to the event of producing an image of someone. Today, the novelty of the event secures it in our minds. When images are instantly produced and available through smartphones, their value plummets and their mark on reality recedes or disappears. The things and people whose images they are may evaporate as well. A million selfies erodes the self.

Having mused a bit on television and photography, here are some first principles of technogesis. They are suggestive, not exhaustive.

First, in any situation you find yourself, look and ask how long the technologies you find have been around. In my writing room, where I now sit, I have a computer, a printer, a stereo, a sleep apnea machine, an electric humidifier, and electric lights. Now ask how the removal of any of these technologies would affect your life. If you are old enough (as I am), you remember days before computers and printers. I wrote all my undergraduate papers on a typewriter. There was no spell-check or delete function (beside white-out or a correcting ribbon). Thus, I thought much more before committing ideas to the page (not screen). I did not send files to my professors electronically. I handed in stapled papers to the professor and got them back with comments (usually). I could expand on this, but it is obvious that the medium of creation affected the matter created. Similarly, when I hand write a card, I slow down to think more before I write, since errors must be crossed out in ink. Putting a pen to paper literally gives a different feel to writing. I do not chose a ready-made font, but print (I forgot how to write in cursive) in my own way.

Second, bring what is in the background of your daily life into the foreground. Almost everyone drives a car, so our engagement is as automatic as the transmission. Technogesis asks how the car affects our sense of self and others. By simply not listening to any audio while driving will reveal much about our attitudes toward driving and our perception of other drivers and people. I often drive in silence, which gives me more space to pray and observe, not merely cars, but the people in them. Your conversation with a passenger improves when it does not have to compete with the radio. Further, by ignoring the controls for car audio (which are getting more complicated), you will drive more safely.

Third, ask those from other countries to reflect on the American way with technology. Outsiders have insights, since they are not habituated to our ways. Years ago, Os Guinness spoke of a visitor to America from a tribal culture who claimed that Americans had “gods on their wrists,” since they looked at their watches so often. When people wear watches, this changes their sense of time and place. Those without time-keepers, keep time differently. No one in the Bible wore a watch, nor did Martin Luther.

Fourth, develop the skills of technogesis by reading astute critics of technology. Pondering the insights of writers such as Lewis Mumford, Neil Postman, Malcolm Muggeridge, Jacques Ellul, Marshall McLuhan, and, more recently, Sherry Turkle gives one new perspectives on what we take for granted. I read Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman in 1987 and have never viewed television—or any image-based communication—the same since.

Fifth, use old technologies to get their feel. I have alluded to the delights of the Polaroid, but consider another example. I bought a working IBM selectric typewriter in 2014 at a garage sale. From 1979-84, I wrote many lecture outlines, articles, and half of my first book on one these proud machines. They were the top of the line typewriters in their day, mostly because of the correction key and the light touch. While carrying my old friend to my car, I was surprised at how heavy it was. Moving such a device required strength and forethought. It was moving a piece of furniture. This material anchorage in space gave typing a more physical and visceral feel. While my computer is a black box to me, I can see how the letters strike the paper on a selectric. I am inscribing, not putting pixels on a screen.

My selectric was a hit at a recent Christmas party at my home. I set it up on a table and encouraged guests to type something to record the event on paper. Some adults were curious and pecked out a few lines. But the children delighted in it, savoring its strange sounds and exposed workings. A six-year-old carefully typed out Mississippi. Her older brother said, “Dad, can we get one?” I leave it to my reader to explore the significance of this vignette, but it illustrates how fascinating it may be to use an outdated technology.

Technogesis is both enjoyable and commendable for reading the signs of the times. Those who simply go with the technological flow may drown without knowing it. This is because the use of their devices unconsciously become part of their way of life, a taken for granted habit. But unconscious habits may become bad habits. Technologies might rob us of well-being even as they increase efficiency.

Thoughts on Your Personal Library

Sometime in the distant past, my collection of books became a library. The question, “Have you read all of them?” was asked of me so often that I began to say, “No. But this is my library.” Since no one has read every book in any public library, I was thus excused. The venerable Vernon Grounds had a library of many thousands, which is now incorporated into the Denver Seminary library. He was gifted with a photographic memory. When asked if he had read all this books, he replied, “No. But I want people to think that I have.” I have stolen his line often.

A prospective new student was lost in wonder when she entered my office several years ago. She moved her head floor to ceiling and back again gazing enraptured at my office library. Her reaction would have been the same for most all the professor’s offices at Denver Seminary. We have libraries, as well as using the seminary’s library. What, then, are some principles for building and curating a personal library? Maybe a book addict should not be giving advice on library building and maintenance. But pushing that legitimate concern aside, I proceed.

Book libraries embed history in the artefacts called books. One may speak of a library of videos, vinyl records, or compact discs (now going out of style) or other media; but these differ from the printed and bound page in that they need an interface to be experienced. DVDs without a DVD player cannot be used. Books, on the contrary, require only literate eyes, hands, and time. They are not accessed (that ugly and overused word) though a computer; nor do they require a screen. In fact, one does not access a book. One finds it and reads it and puts it back in its place (or loses it, as I often do). Each page is its own screen and cannot be clicked away. One must touch a book to read a book.

Books have unique charms that cannot be replaced by digitized information. I took this up in my prehistoric book, The Soul in Cyberspace (Baker, 1997), in a chapter called, “The Book, The Screen, and The Soul.” For now, it is enough to fathom that books bear meaning graciously. As such, they should be treated thoughtfully—that is, placed in a library.

Books can be placed on bricks and boards (most of mine are) or displayed in aesethically pleasing ways, such as on polished oak shelves (my dream). Durability, visibility, and order are the three cardinal principles of organization for any library.

You do not want a bookshelf to come crashing down on you. Nor do you want the books themselves to be crushed and creased in such avalanches. The skeleton for your library should be durable. Beware of sagging boards and high stacks of tottering books.

One book may rudely obscure another book in an unruly library. I call this double parking and deserve citations for this infraction. Unless one has a digital record of one’s books, double parking takes books out of view and likely out of mind. Since the point of a library is to put your hands and eyes on books, this should be avoided. Your books should be visible.

While visibility is a necessary condition for a friendly library, it is not a sufficient condition. Most all my books are visible, but I still search in vain for many books that I know I own. (Someone should invent a chip that could be put in books that could give off signals received by monitoring device that could locate them.) When I was younger with a smaller library, I could simply remember where my books were, no matter how disordered my library might be. Goodbye to most of that. My library transcended my memory long ago.

I defer to those with the gift of administration to explain the organization of a library in details. Of course, there are apps for this. Fundamentally, books should be ordered in some pattern of logical association. I now have all my Francis Schaeffer books in one bookshelf. However, I could have divided them up into subject matter—art, apologetics, culture, spirituality—and grouped them with other books on the same subjects. Those with sprawling or out of control libraries should humble themselves and seek help from those with organizational gifts (and perhaps from counselors who specialize in treating book addictions.) Briefly, libraries without organization are muted and hamstrung thereby. I know. I have purchased books on Amazon that I knew I owned, because had little hope of finding them in time for what I needed them for.

But we have not spoken of which books to buy, where to buy them, when to purge them, and whether or not to lend them. What books should populate your library?

Books given as gifts might not be worthy of enshrining in your library, since it is difficult to discern another’s taste in books and to know what books he or she owns. Duplicates and duds can be given away (to a second-hand store, perhaps) or re-gifted. You may want to keep some for sentimental reasons. My mother was a generous gift giver and tried for about thirty-five years to give me books that I would like. Her batting average was low, but her heart was good. I have kept most of her books and have savored a few of them.

What books should you acquire? There is an art to buying the right book.

First, it should be a book you are likely to read or use as a reference. Books were not made to be decorations or to be financial investments (unless you collect rare books). But what kind of book should you read?

Consider, secondly, the qualifications of the author relative to the subject matter. As economist Thomas Sowell says, “Expertise is not transferrable.” An expert is discipline A is not likely to be worth reading in discipline B, although there are exceptions. Raymond Tallis (who has a regular column in The Philosopher’s Magazine) is a medical doctor who has not been an academic philosopher. Nevertheless, he is an outstanding philosopher, however much you disagree with his atheism. Atheist Richard Dawkins, on the other hand, is a biologist who is (to put it kindly) unmusical about philosophy and religion. He can neither find nor carry the tune in these areas, despite his overconfident rhetorical rousting.

Third, the publisher of a book may be as important as the qualifications of the author. Self-published books are a wild card for quality.[1] This is because the author does not submit to the discipline of an established publisher, which has a history of critically evaluating authors and manuscripts. Some commendable books have been self-published[2], but the odds are against them. Contrariwise, if one finds that a book is published by InterVarsity Press, odds are that it is worthwhile. (Yes, I have published seven books and three booklets with InterVarsity, but please believe me anyway.)

Besides speaking to the general quality of a book, knowing something about the publisher may tell you the perspective of the book. For example, Prometheus Books (not surprisingly) publishes only books critical of religion or which do not address religion. Ignatius Press only publishes books on or friendly to Roman Catholicism. University Presses tend to publish intellectually engaging books, however wrong they may be. Harvest House, a Christian publisher, specializes in Christian fiction and devotional books. They are not known for academic works. However, I published two such books with them, Deceived by the Light (1995) and Jesus in an Age of Controversy (1998).

I cannot dilate on what particular books to buy here, but I urge you to buy and read classic works rather than imbibing on recent popular fair. The Holy Bible is the ultimate classic and books of books. Thus, should be read and studied for a life time. One should also acquire books to help understand the Bible, such as commentaries, study Bibles, Bible dictionaries, and so on.

Besides the Bible, a rich library will be well stocked in the classics of literature and philosophy—the sort of books that made up The Great Books series from decades ago. Some modern writers, such as C.S. Lewis, penned classics that will outlast most of the books published in the last fifty years.

Having discussed what books to buy, where should one buy them? I look everywhere. I discover books through browsing libraries (including my own), bookstores (new and used), looking at catalogues, and consulting Amazon, where I buy most of my books at good discounts. But books may be anywhere. One can find gems for little cost at library book sales, second-hand stores, estate sales and yard sales. Occasionally, people place books or magazines out as garbage. If you have the nerves, the book can be yours.

But what if your library seems to grow to fat? What if your shelves are sagging and your books are bulging out everywhere? It may be time—to use the dreaded word—to prune your library. A serious reader will never eliminate books from her library for cosmetic purposes. I was horrified when I read in The Magic of Cleaning up that decluttering may mean throwing out books! I almost never crash a book. They should be kept or given away. Some books, however, deserve to die, because no one should them. One such book is Barack Obama is Satan. I was given this book at a conference, accepted it, and later tore it up before putting it in my room’s garbage. I did not want the help to take out this trash while putting out the rest of the trash.

If you do prune, what gets pruned? Having reduced my library a few times, I recommend not pruning at all, since I have repurchased several books and lamented the loss of others. I make it a policy now to never eliminate a book I have read because it is part of my intellectual history which I want to conserve. Some books do go out of date, such as those warning of the Y2K disaster. I recently gave one to Goodwill. Perhaps a historian of technology would keep it, but not me. But what of the books you think you will never read? I have books purchased over thirty years ago that I still want to read, such as Saving the Appearances by one of C.S. Lewis’s best friends, Owen Barfield. If you are a teacher or a writer, it is difficult to tell which books remain useful to you. Thus, err on the side of being conservative. Better to keep the unneeded that to need the unavailable.

If your collection of books crosses the mystical threshold and becomes a library, then you should curate it well. It is both a reflection of you and you are reflection of it. In it, you may find the sustained delights of book knowledge, one of God’s good gifts to his creatures.


[1] Literary sleuths can sniff out one of these critters by noting one or more of the following blemishes. 1. It uses unconventional graphics, such as italics and bold for the same word or using all capital letters for emphasis. 2. Sources are quoted without references given. 3. The front and back covers look amateurish in art and inscription. 4. Paragraphs are not indented. While a likely sign of self-publishing, such paragraphing may appear in legitimate books, such as the Very Brief Guide series published by Oxford University Press. 5. It lacks and ISBN number. However, some self-published books secure ISBN numbers. Every established publisher assigns an ISBN number to its books. 6. In some cases, a table of contents is left out. 7. In general, there is a lack of proper form and convention found in regularly published books. 8. Odd or inept titles may give away a self-published book, such as a book given to me recently called, Barack Obama is Satan.

[2] For example, the series of theological books on Reformed Baptist theology by Douglas Van Dorn and a soon to be published work of fiction by Jean Hoefling.

The Restless Heart, Augustine, and Us

You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.

So wrote Aurelius Augustine (354-430), later known as Saint Augustine. This simple sentence is more than a psychological description, a philosophical speculation, or a dogmatic dictum. On the contrary, it reflects a philosophy of life that came from a remarkable life and a remarkable life of the mind. Contemporary Christians, so often content with theological baby food, should listen to this profound thinker. By doing this, we will learn how to argue from the human condition to the existence of God.

Biography and Philosophy

Augustine was born in northern Egypt in 354. Young Augustine excelled academically. Though raised by a pious mother, Monica, he did not follow in her Christian footsteps by leaving the church in young adulthood to make the most of his intelligence. Augustine was a master teacher of rhetoric. He became, as he later wrote, very proud of his endowments and achievements. Unconstrained by Christianity, he took a mistress and had a child by her.

Augustine was studious and philosophical, studying the leading philosophies of his day. This first lead him into a general skepticism. After this, for a time he associated with the Manicheans. This religion has historically expired, but its central tenets still appeal to many, especially those drawn to Gnosticism. Manichaeism was a form of dualism, which argued that the material world was evil and irredeemable. Salvation is found by renouncing and transcending the world in hopes of reaching a purely immaterial (or spiritual) state of well-being. While Augustine was intellectually drawn to this viewpoint, his bodily urgencies spoke against it.

Augustine eventually heard the Christian teachings of Albert Magus, who deeply impressed him intellectually. Magus understood the spirit and philosophy of the times, and argued against Manichaeism. Yet there was still a war within Augustine, then in his early thirties. He chaffed at relinquishing his life of pleasure, even though it never satisfied him.

The Conversion

But the voice of a child eventually made all the difference and helped a tormented man step into Christianity with his whole being. While outside puzzling and suffering over this own condition, he heard the voice of a boy or girl chanting, “pick up, read; pick up, read.”[1] Augustine was prompted by this to take up a Bible, open it randomly, and read what his eyes first fixed upon. As he says in Book VIII of The Confessions, what he read was from the Book of Romans:

“Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying; but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof.” [Romans 13:12]. I wanted to read no further, nor did I need to. For instantly, as the sentence ended there was infused in my heart something like the light of full certainty and all the gloom of doubt vanished away.[2]

This situation and text spoke to his condition so profoundly that he took it to be the call of God on his rebellious and exasperating life. The conjunction of circumstances communicated truth to Augustine, a truth he could not deny.

The Confessions

Augustine’s classic work, The Confessions, tells this story. It is not an autobiography in the modern account, since he leaves out much of importance in his life. He describes events that reveal the presence and power of God in his life. The detailed confession of sin is the enduring theme of the book, which is a philosophically-drenched prayer. But the confession to God, Augustine thinks, is also good for others to know. It is indeed. This book is packed with apologetic significance, especially concerning the reality of sin, the guilty conscience, and the way of redemption through Christ.

Augustine wrote “You have made us for ourselves and our hearts are restless until the rest in Thee,” near the beginning of his work He spoke of as a Christian; but his reference is universal—our hearts. The entire human race is in mind, which means Augustine is offering a philosophical anthropology. In brief, there is something wrong with human beings that only God can cure.

Augustine’s self-analysis was permeated by his conscience. He discerned his own flaws, chiefly pride, which he latter considered the wellspring of all sin. Since contemporary culture rarely uses the word sin in a way that would be recognizable to Augustine, we should explore it. Without an understanding of sin, apologetics has no purchase on the modern conscience.

Augustine and Sin

First, Augustine did not take sin to be a collection of incidental mistakes, but rather a condition that affects the entire person. The person with whom he had deepest acquaintance was himself. But his heart was “restless.” By “heart,” Augustine mean the deepest reach of the person, the center of intellect, affection, and will.

Second, sin is only sin before a holy God. There are social stigmas that cause guilt and shame. But Augustine’s sense of sin went much deeper and broader and higher. Sin was a wrong orientation (pride) that issued in wrong behavior against God and man. But God was the ultimate observer and evaluator, whatever people or cultures may say.

Third, the essence of sinful thoughts and behavior was idolatry. Augustine claimed that idols take a part of creation and expect it to do the work of the Creator. But no idol can provide a sufficient object for worship and moral direction. In other words, idolatry confuses God with creation. It is fine to use food to nourish the body and please the pallet; but it is wrong to make it an idol, to value it above its real worth. The Apostle Paul, who much influenced Augustine, spoke of those “whose god is their belly.” (Philippians 3:11, KJV).

Given Augustine’s notion of sin, how he explain the motivation for stealing the pears? The pears were neither beautiful nor needed for food. The hogs which enjoyed them were not starving. This act seemed to have no purpose. But actions (as opposed to reflexes) have some reason behind them. This was an enigma to Augustine.

It dawned on Augustine that he sinned for the sake of sin itself. Although the act itself was not heinous, the motivation behind it was. He says, “For I pilfered something which I already had in sufficient measure, and of much better quality. I did not desire to enjoy what I stole, but only the theft and the sin itself.”

Augustine endeavors to explain the problem of weakness of will. This occurs when we know we should perform some action, but we do not. But if we know we should do something, what could convince us otherwise? He knew he should not steal the pears. He knew there was no justification for it. Yet he stole them nonetheless. His way out of this dilemma was to explain his evil act by virtue of vice—a vice that can only be explained in relation to a standard outside of himself.

Augustine next articulates the deepest reason for the sins he lists above. All our vices stem from virtues found in God. But these divine goods are corrupted by creatures who want the goodness of God, but without God. He brings all this back to his theft of the pears.

Thus the soul commits fornication when she is turned from thee and seeks apart from you, what she cannot find pure and untainted until she returns to you. All things thus imitate you—but pervertedly—when they separate themselves far from you and raise themselves up against you. But, even in this act of perverse imitation, they acknowledge you to be the Creator of all nature, and recognize that there is no place whither they can altogether separate themselves from you. What was it, then, that I loved in that theft? And wherein was I imitating my lord, even in a corrupted and perverted way? Did I wish, if only by gesture, to rebel against your law, even though I had no power to do so actually—so that, even as a captive, I might produce a sort of counterfeit liberty, by doing with impunity deeds that were forbidden, in a deluded sense of omnipotence?[3]

The modern mind may find this melodramatic or neurotic or both. The jurist, Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote that it’s a “Rum thing to see man making a mountain our robbing a pear tree in his teens.”[4]

Augustine’s sense of the self and morality went deep, both psychologically and philosophically. As to the question of where moral standards are to found, he offers God as their grounding. Humans are accountable to God because they twist the goodness of creation for their own selfish ends. His approach is subjective and autobiographical, but this method leads him outside of himself to a perfect and personal being. He thus argues from man to God.

As an adult convert, Augustine wanted to recount his multifaceted life from a mature perspective, and more momentously to him, to commend the One in whom his heart could now rest. How, exactly, does the restless heart find rest? So far, we have said more about the sticky wicket of sin than of any way of salvation.

When Augustine was flirting with Manicheanism, he thought that the world of space, time, and matter was beyond redemption. Salvation was found by escaping this world. When Augustine considered Christianity, he found that the cosmos was created as originally good by a good God. So while there is a dualism between Creator and creation, there is no dualism of matter (evil) and spirit (good). Therefore, there is hope for the body and the material universe, since they are not intrinsically evil.

This hope was found the person was Christ. Some have taken Augustine to be a Platonist or Neo-Platonist in Christian dress. But this is not true. His mission was to relate Christianity to the other worldviews of the day and to work out all the implication of his own. He looked for common ground with other philosophies, and especially with Platonism. This makes sense since Platonism affirms the reality of an eternal, immaterial, and primordial reality in the realm of the Forms or Ideas. Augustine took this as partly right. Reality is not exhausted by the material world. There is a spiritual world. However, the longings of Augustine’s soul could not be answered by any impersonal spiritual idea. His famous sentence, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in thee,” speaks of a reality irreducibly personal, interpersonal, and reverential.

Augustine thought his guilt to be real, not just existentially real (guilt feelings), but objectively real. It dragged him down, racking and wrecking his conscience. Where could he turn?

Manichaeism taught that Jesus was a spirit, but did not have a body. He was a messenger of Light, but not a mediator. For Augustine, this Jesus provided no release from his guilt or from his anguish over his inner urges, which he knew were wrong. However, he found that Christian teaching confessed Jesus as truly human, as well as divine. The God-man offered what no philosophy of his day could: a mediator who understood our lot as humans and could reconcile us to God as divine.

Augustine’s Argument in Brief

Augustine’s argument, as sketched out here, is not his only major philosophical argument to be sure. His prolific writings cover much ground, philosophically, historically, and pastorally. While his argument begins with self, it does not end up there. We can summarize it:

  1. Humans possess the knowledge of both a moral law within them and their inability to obey it sufficiently to placate their conscience.
  2. This produces guilt over sin and longing in the sensitive soul.
  3. The chief form of sin is idolatry, which relies on the concept of God’s perfection for its energy. It is fueled by pride, instead of love.
  4. God is the best explanation for the awareness of the moral law, since he provides a perfect source for it.
  5. God has made provision for our restless and idolatrous human lot though sending a mediator, who himself is human as well as divine.

  6. Therefore: our hearts can find rest in the grace offered by God alone.

Augustine offers a kind of existential best explanation argument for the human situation. He opens a window into the world of philosophy with the malaise of mortals in clear view. His exploration of the depths of inner space leads him to the truth of a God outside of himself. This is surely an apt apologetic today.[5]


[1] Augustine, The Confessions, trans., Albert C. Outler (New York: Barnes and Noble, 2007) 8.12.29, p. 125.

[2] Ibid., 8.12.29, p. 126.

[3] Ibid., 2.6.14, p. 25-26.

[4] Quoted in Augustine, The Confessions, 301.

[5] This essay is adapted from “Augustine: Our Hearts are Restless until they Rest in You,” Philosophy in Seven Sentences (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2016).

An Informal Guide to Study Bibles

Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path—Psalm 119:105

A long-time friend recently wrote me with some excitement that she had purchased her first study Bible. This surprised me, since she is solid Christian who holds a degree from an evangelical seminary. There are many ways to grow in our knowledge of God through the Bible, but I have found that a biblically-based study Bible is one of the best.

Christians should not only read but also study the Bible. Studying requires focused attention on what the books of the Bible reveal. One learns to follow the logic and narrative of a book’s presentation, determine what genre of literature is used by the writer, know the cultural background of the book, how one passage relates to other passages, and more. While there is a vast literature of books—academic and popular—written for a better understanding of Holy Scripture, the genre of a Study Bible offers the ardent Christian meaty resources for greater knowledge of “the living and active” Word of God (Hebrews 4:12; 2 Timothy 3:15-17).

A study Bible contains the entire text of Scripture in one of many translations. To further understanding, it adds introductions to the books of the Bible, cross references, outlines of books, study notes, maps, diagrams, special essays on various topics, indexes, and more. (A study Bible differs from a Bible commentary in that the latter does not include the entire text of Scripture. It, rather, refers to and quotes from Biblical passages for the sake of the commentary.) The number of Study Bibles has multiplied in recent decades. Which ones are worth studying? Consider five basic principles.

First, one should use a Study Bible with a solid translation. Evangelicals scholars generally endorse The New International Version, The New American Standard Bible, The English Standard Bible, and (with some caveats), the King James Bible and the New King James Bible. A translation should be distinguished from a paraphrase, such as The Living Bible, The New Living Bible, or The Message. These works, while helpful in some cases, are not the texts from which one should study the Bible in earnest.

Second, Study Bibles worth studying are prepared by scholars worth reading. Most Study Bibles are prepared a team of scholars, who are listed near the front of the Bible. Scholars, who teach Evangelical institutions, such as Denver Seminary, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Westminster Theological Seminary, Covenant Theological Seminary, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Talbot School of Theology, and others, are to be preferred. However, there are some solid biblical scholars who teach at more liberal institutions.

Other study Bibles are prepared by single authors, such as The MacArthur Study Bible (John MacArthur) or The Ryrie Study Bible (Charles Ryrie). When one man takes on one book as large, diverse, and consequential as the Holy Bible, he faces a daunting task. Nevertheless, it can be done well by some scholars, including the two mentioned just mentioned. On the other hand, The Scofield Reference Bible (C.I. Scofield, first published in 1909), while historically significant as the first American study Bible, was prepared by a man who never attended seminary. Much of the scholarship is out of date as well.

Third, the typesetting should be readable. As I get older, I am frustrated by how small the commentary text is in some study Bibles. If you strain to read some of the study material, then you are not likely to study it.

Fourth, while all study Bibles share common features—such as commentary, outlines, and introductions—they differ in the tools they offer and the perspective or emphasis they proffer. The emphasis may be obvious, as with The Archaeology Study Bible or The Apologetics Study Bible. The titles of some study Bibles give away their perspective, such as The Reformation Study Bible or The Spirit-Filled Study Bible (charismatic).

Fifth, some study Bibles are sparse on academic material, but are devotional in focus. The Bible itself is both intellectual gripping and devotionally rich, and a good study Bible should recognize this. However, do not expect much theological reflection or exegetical rigor in something like The Inspirational Study Bible by Pastor Max Lucado, whatever merits it may have, since it offers little to actually study.

For those who are zealous for examining the Bible in detail, learning its truths, making them known to the world, and applying them to live, consider several study Bibles.

General, multi-scholar works

  1. The NIV Study Bible. I have used this work more than any other. It was first published in 1985, and I have consulted it ever since. The study tools are robust and the scholars well-qualified. It was recently updated.
  2. The Zondervan NIV Study Bible. This features the most recent evangelical scholarship by leading scholars. It goes into more depth than The NIV Study Bible.
  3. The ESV Study Bible. An able work by conservative biblical scholars using the English Standard Version.

Single author works:

  1. The Ryrie Study Bible. Prepared by a long-time professor at Dallas Theological Seminary, it is Dispensational in focus, but much more supplicated and academic than the much earlier Dispensational work, TheScofield Reference Bible.
  2. The MacArthur Study Bible. Pastor John MacArthur has been teaching, preaching, and writing for over forty years. He is known for his strong—and sometimes controversial—stands on doctrine and for careful biblical preaching.

Special Emphasis Bibles

  1. The Reformation Study Bible. Reformed theology informs this work, which features excellent commentary and short essays on theological topics.
  2. The Apologetics Study Bible. The overarching theme is the rational defense of the Christian faith. Its notes and essays will equip the reader to defend the biblical worldview.
  3. The Spirit-Filled Bible. Written from a charismatic perspective. I find its short inserts on key biblical words particularly helpful.
  1. Walter Martin’s Cult Reference Bible. This out of print work, edited by the father of the evangelical counter-cult movement, brings together writers knowledgeable about cultic doctrine in relation to historic Christian orthodoxy. However, noble the goal and able the writers, the volume lacks adequate commentary and study helps.

Study Bibles Outside of Evangelicalism

  1. The Jewish Study Bible. While not Christian in orientation, this study of the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament) is helpful in better understanding the Jewish mind about their sacred text.
  2. The Orthodox Study Bible. This underscores the relation of the Bible to Orthodoxy’s deep liturgy and its sacred tradition. One will find less material on biblical languages and exegesis than in the other study Bibles mentioned here.
  3. The Catholic Study Bible. Like Orthodoxy, Catholicism emphasizes church tradition more than Protestants (who affirm sola scriptura) and differs from it in key doctrines. Nevertheless, its contributors are able academically.

Study Bibles abound, and I have not mentioned all of them. Nevertheless, the principles and comments in this essay should help chart the way to learn more about Scripture through this method of study.

Against April Fool’s Day

Why is there an unofficial holiday in which people lie to each other in the hopes of their lie not being exposed until those who believe the lie are shamed because of their credulity? On the face of it, it is odd and cruel. The limited laughter it produces is not worth the price.

Perhaps April Fool’s Day is a way to train people to be more critical in evaluating truth claims. No one should believe outrageous claims on insufficient evidence. That is true. However, many pranks on the first day of April are not outrageous, but believable. These lies serve no purpose at all, except to embarrass people who believe false things for good reasons. This undermines trust and inflicts unnecessary embarrassment on people who are doing their best to know reality. Further, some outrageous claims end up being true and reasonable, such as Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.

Some April Fool’s reports are so transparently false and entertaining that we know they are jokes. The Eagle’s Cry, the student newspaper of West Anchorage High School, ran an April fool’s edition every year. When I was on staff in 1975, we featured a story reporting that I had joined the ROTC. It featured a photo of me, a long-haired hippie, wearing a faux military hat while saluting to the camera. No ROTC student could sport long hair, and everyone knew it was false. It was an (unjustifiable) dig at the military, but no one believed it. I am not concerned about that kind of thing. Rather, if a spurious truth claim undermines genuine trust in testimony, it is off limits to those who value knowledge (justified truth beliefs).

Basic to human belief systems in general is trust in testimony. We cannot doubt everything consistently nor should we. If person S says P, unless there is reason for suspicion, it is justified to believe that P is true—whatever day it is. Those who believe April fool’s lies have usually committed no epistemic crime. They simply forgot that this day enshrines lying for amusement at other’s expense.

For these reasons, if anyone values truth, knowledge, and trust, she should abandon this culturally-enshrined practice of prevarication. Let April 1 be April’s Truth Day.

Lament in a Broken World

A vast literature on happiness has emerged in recent years that is based on “positive psychology.” Instead of emphasizing neurosis and disorders, psychologists are exploring what leads to human fulfillment. One book is called Authentic Happiness. That is good in its place, but we have little instruction on the wise use of woe. There is no book called Authentic Sadness. Virtuously aligning human feeling with objective fact is no small endeavor, and it takes us far beyond pleasurable sensations. As C.S. Lewis wrote in The Abolition of Man.

Until quite modern times all teachers and even all men believed the universe to be such that certain emotional reactions on our part could either be congruous or incongruous to it—believed, in fact, that objects did not merely receive, but could merit, our approval or disapproval, our reverence or out contempt.

If Lewis is right, then some objects and situations merit lament as well. But our affections are too often out of gear. We often weep when we should laugh and laugh when we should weep, or we feel nothing when we should feel something. Decades ago, a pop song confessed, “Sometimes I don’t know how to feel.” We have all felt this confusion. Nevertheless, our affect should follow our intellect in discerning how to respond to a world of groaning in travail and awaiting its final redemption (Romans 8:18-21). We live in between times and “under the sun,” as Ecclesiastes puts it. Accordingly, we are obligated to know what time it is.

There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance (Ecclesiastes 3:1, 4).

Sadness has its seasons as does happiness; this is simply because God’s creation has fallen into sin and has yet to reach its culmination in the new heavens and the new earth (Revelation 21-22). Before then, we are still exiles, but living in hope. If we are to be godly stewards of our emotions, we must know the signs of the times, know our present time, and know what these times should elicit within us.

Our sadness should be judicious and obedient, not hasty, melodramatic, or inane. This is a moral and spiritual matter, not one of mere feelings. Emotions easily err. After the Colorado Rockies baseball team was eliminated from a playoff game some years ago, a Rockies fan reported on television that this loss was like “a death in the family.” That struck me as pathetic, if not daft—a sadness spoiled by a disordered soul. I wonder how her family members responded to this, since the sadness was not rightly related to the event that occasioned it.

Sadness intrudes unbidden in a variety of dark shades. I cannot offer a taxonomy or hierarchy of it here. (Robert Burden did so in 1621 in his Anatomy of Melancholy.) Rather, consider one often-misunderstood form of sorrow—lament. What is it? Frederick Buechner wrote that “Vocation is the place where our deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.” In that spirit, lament is where our deep sadness meets the world’s deep wounds. And this world has its wounds.

The largest wound of all wounds was the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus Christ, who suffered more than anyone ever had or ever will, and with the greatest possible effect. His cry was the apex of all laments, “My God, my God. Why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46; See Psalm 22:1). It is only because of this lament that our laments gain their ultimate meaning. If the perfect Son of God can lament and not sin, so may we. Further, that anguished cry was answered by his resurrection on the third day.

Christians lament because that which is objectively good has been violated or destroyed. Creation itself is objectively good—deemed so by God himself (Genesis 1). Christians lament because objective goods have been violated. Yet humans have rebelled against God, themselves, each other, and creation. As the Preacher puts it, “All things are wearisome, more than one can say.” (Ecclesiastes 1:8). In Lament for a Son, Nicholas Wolterstorff notes that Jesus blessed those who mourn (Matthew 5:4), because they are “wounded visionaries,” seeking genuine goods that escape their grasp. In this sense, their godly frustration is their blessing—and the aching will one day be answered.

But when we lament, we do not do so in a void of meaninglessness. Even though many of our desires are disordered, and thus vain or evil, a good many of them remain in line with God’s desire to restore shalom. We cry out over the loss of a child, over war, over stupidity, cupidity, immortality, and more. Paul was in anguish over the unbelief his countrymen.

I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people, those of my own race, the people of Israel (Romans 9:2-4; see also 10:1).

But Paul never descended into despair or gave up the cause of Christ. Even having suffered terrible torments for Christ, he marched on, knowing that our “labor in the Lord is not in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58).

Lament is not only a literary genre of Scripture but is an indelible category of human existence east of Eden. (Consider the many Psalms of lament, such as 22, 39, 88, 90, as well the Book of Lamentations). It can be done well or poorly, but it cannot be avoided by any but sociopaths. Fallen mortals bemoan life’s suffering, often mixing their grief with outrage. Whether outwardly or only inwardly, they raise their voices, shake their fists, beat their breasts, and shed hot tears. The Negro spiritual intones, “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen. Nobody knows but Jesus.” The blues, leaning on the spirituals, lament in a thousand ways. “Nobody knows you when you’re down and out,” cries Eric Clapton. When Duke Ellington played his wordless lament, “Mood Indigo,” on his first European tour, some in the audience wept. Even heavy metal, full of thunder, rage, and debauchery, often laments life’s burdens. In Metallica’s “Master of Puppets,” the singer’s voice is the personification of cocaine. It lies, enslaves, manipulates, and pulls the strings of the addicted. This is a roaring, electronic lament. But there is no hope; it is protest without promise.

We all bewail the injustices, suffering, and terrors of this life, but not all worldviews make room for the full expression of human personality amidst these misfortunes. For instance, the Zen poet, Isa, lost several children and his young wife. In his deep sorrow, he went to a Zen master who told him that “Life is dew.” It all passes away and one must adjust to the inevitable.  This is the Buddhist teaching of non-attachment to the impermanent. But Isa, made in the image of God and wanting a better answer, wrote a short poem: “Life is dew, life is dew…and yet, and yet.” Isa could not accept the cure, because Zen did not understand the disease. Life is more than dew. Zen let him down, because it would not let him inhabit his sorrow.

If we have established something of the meaning of lament biblically and philosophically, we need delve into its practice in this world of woe and wonder, of weeping and laughing, morning and dancing (Eccles. 3:1-8).

First, those who take the Bible to be the knowable revelation of God about the things that matter most (2 Timothy 3:15-16) should discover the genre of lament in Scripture. Besides the Psalms of lament and Lamentations, perhaps Ecclesiastes is the richest biblical resource. The Teacher is weighed down by the seeming futility of life, but realizes that sadness gives needed, if unwanted, lessons.

It is better to go to a house of mourning
than to go to a house of feasting,
for death is the destiny of everyone;
the living should take this to heart.
  Frustration is better than laughter,
because a sad face is good for the heart.
  The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning,
but the heart of fools is in the house of pleasure (Ecclesiastes 7:2-4).

Ecclesiastes, more than any other book of Holy Scripture, has given me the perspective and language of lament necessary for my own sad sojourn during the last fifteen years. It is a deep well of tough wisdom for the weary soul.

Second, lament requires a deep knowledge of God, of the world, and of ourselves. It is often said that our hearts should break where God’s heart breaks. We should “rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15), and not the opposite.  To adjust our emotions to reality, we must gain knowledge from the Bible and sound thinking (Romans 12:1-2). We are not to grieve the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4:30). A corollary is that we should know what grieves the Holy Spirit, and grieve along with him.

Third, lament is not grumbling, which is selfish, impatient, and pointless. The children of Israel grumbled against God even as God was providing for their pilgrimage, just as he promised. Paul says, Do everything without grumbling or arguing” (Phil 2:14). While the distinction between grumbling and lament is not easy to make, it is a real distinction. Scripture encourages lament and warns against grumbling, but I may defend my selfish outbursts as lament. Isaiah declares a lament was needed, “The Lord, the LORD Almighty, called you on that day to weep and to wail, to tear out your hair and put on sackcloth” (Isaiah 22:12). James says much the same to Christians who should lament over their sins:  “Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom.  Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.” (James 4:9-10).

One day God will lift up those who mourn and grieve before him on his terms. He will judge and resurrect the entire cosmos in the end (Daniel 12:2). On this, we place our trust and direct our hope. Yet the Lamb then in our midst was once scarred, crucified, and buried the sake of our redemption. God counts our tears before he takes them away (Psalm 56:8; Revelation 21:4). Learning to lament is, then, part of our lot under the sun. We and our neighbors are better for it, tears and all.

On Nonsense

Philosophy affects vocabulary. Ideas shape words. Consider the word nonsense or the phrase it makes no sense. The Oxford online dictionary says of nonsense:

Spoken or written words that have no meaning or make no sense: he was talking absolute nonsense.

This is not entirely helpful since make no sense is another way of saying nonsense. A word cannot define itself. The online Merriam-Webster dictionary is superior in defining nonsense:

Words or language having no meaning or conveying no intelligible ideas or (1): language, conduct, or an idea that is absurd or contrary to good sense (2): an instance of absurd action.

To say that anything is nonsense is no compliment. A nonsense statement—green ideas sleep poorly, for example—lacks meaning. But why does it? It is because it is meaningless. But note the word sense, which is negated. This typically means what can be acquired through the senses—that is, what is empirical.

An exceptionally bad book, written by a Christian, claims that Christianity is nonsense because it speaks of realities beyond the senses. The same sad book rejoices that Christianity is nonsense and irrational. Yet why should what is beyond sense be nonsense in the sense of being irrational? Empiricism lurks and smirks behind scenes, and must be smoked out.

Empiricism claims that all knowledge is based on sensory experience. A secular version of this epistemology condemns an idea or worldview that purports to reach beyond the sensory world. According to this theory, Christianity is rationally suspect or, worse yet, non-sense.

The story is long and twisted, but eighteenth century Brits are largely to blame, especially John Locke and David Hume. Locke was a theist (and perhaps a Christian). Hume was a skeptic (and perhaps a deist). But their philosophies pushed many thinkers to deny knowledge of anything outside of the natural world.

Hence, nonsense is defined as meaningless, foolish, or absurd. But false philosophy is pulling the strings behind dictionaries and thesauruses. We do receive knowledge from the senses. I note that my typing is resulting in images on my screen. I do not know this by searching inside my soul. I see it. But I could not write at all if I did not have a mind. Minds are not empirical objects known through sensory evidence. I could see my brain on a brain scan, but I could never see my thoughts or feelings, which are immaterial events. You cannot see or touch my mind, although you can infer that it exists (I hope) by my behavior.

Human thought and communication also requires that we obey the absolute laws of logic, which are not empirically discovered, but are, rather, rational intuitions. The law of noncontradiction, codified by Aristotle, states that:

It is impossible for the same thing to belong and not to belong at the same time to the same thing and in the same respect.

This principle is universally, necessarily, and absolutely true; it is not based on inductive generalizations or empirical investigation. As such, it is non-sensory. More technically, the law of noncontradiction is an a priori truth, something known before or apart from experience.

The next time you hear someone (or yourself) say nonsense, take a philosophical journey behind that word. You should discover a lush land of sure and sturdy knowledge that is non-sensory, yet surely not nonsensical in the vernacular use of the term. You may even discover God and say with the Apostle Paul:

Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen (1 Timothy 1:17)

Should Christians Mix Faith and Politics?

Guest post by: Chad E. Graham

Should Christians mix faith and politics? This question has always bothered me—even to the extent that I am currently working on a thesis titled Doing Good in the Republic: The Ethics of Christian Political Engagement. Like me, you might have some concerns with the question as stated. I ask: What does it mean to “mix” faith and politics? Why would mixing them be an ethical concern? Does the question, as stated, presuppose that politics is bad? The question itself is problematic.

When people ask me if Christians should mix faith and politics, I answer, “Christians in a democratic republic (the U.S.) must engage in politics.” I will defend that answer here, but I should explain what I mean by “engage in politics.” In the United States of America, citizens have the right and responsibility to elect their own state and federal representatives. These officials make, adjudicate, and enforce laws that reflect the will of the people, within the parameters set forth in the Constitution. In a rudimentary sense, U.S. citizens are a “self-governing” people.

Politics encompasses the activities associated with governance and civil rule. Whenever citizens vote to elect officials, they are “engaging in politics.” Voting is the most fundamental and tangible form of political engagement in the United States. By voting for a candidate at any level, you are playing a role in the self-governance of civil society. It is my understanding that Christians are to do good (Ps. 37:3) and restrain evil (Isa. 1:17). The Christian notion of “good” is akin to the Hebrew word shalom meaning “peace” and the Greek term eudaimonia meaning “human flourishing.” Given the duty to be and do good, here are three of many reasons why I think Christians must engage in politics:

  1. If all citizens did not vote, society would collapse into chaos. If all citizens abrogated their duty to vote, we would have no representation, no military, and no governance. The citizens who enjoy the freedom America provides are duty-bound to maintain that freedom through voting and engaging civil society. Should Christians be exempt from this duty? Are we advocates of chaos? Are we advocates of freedom with no form? No—we are advocates and doers of good (1 Tim. 6:18; Gal. 6:9; Heb. 10:24). How can we promote human flourishing by undermining the infrastructure of our society?
  1. For elected government to be good government, good citizens must vote. Who will elect good representatives, who have authority to make good laws? Who will elect good judges, judges that have a proper notion of justice, if good citizens abstain from voting? Christians believe that God is good (2 Pet. 1:3; 1 Tim. 4:4; Jas. 1:17), and Christians, therefore, are to be and do good as People of God (Matt. 5:16; Jas. 4:17; Rom. 12:2). I assume that this means: use your influence for good, use your money for good, use your word for good, and also use your vote for doing good.
  1. Laws have power to help or hurt the poor. Laws protect the equality of citizens. Laws protect children from becoming a cheap labor force. Laws can be utilized to protect the economy from collapsing. Laws guarantee education rights and rights to emergency medical care. Bills are passed that fund weather alert programs in poor neighborhoods and fund inner-city food pantries that feed the homeless. Elected officials lobby for laws that do good, when good citizens elect them to office. If good citizens do not caucus for good representatives, the needs of the poor are left to cultural currents—or worse. Christians are mandated to care for the poor (Prov. 22:9; 31:20; Dan. 4:27; Matt. 19:21; Gal. 2:10; Jas. 2:5). Should we pretend that our vote does not affect the poor?

The Church should be like the prophets of the Old Testament, who cried out to their leaders for justice and conduct honoring to God. The Church must respond to injustice in unison with Habakkuk, moaning, “So the law is paralyzed, and justice never goes forth. For the wicked surround the righteous; so justice goes forth perverted” (Hab. 1:4). Christians must identify injustice and fight against it, being equipped with the very Word of God. The prophet Micah affirms our duty to God, pleading: “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Mic. 6:8). If civic duty does not compel our vote, God’s requirement for justice should suffice as motive.

It is also a mistake to think that justice and good deeds should remain within the walls of the Church. Think about the parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk. 10:25–37). We are called to reach out into the world and help our neighbor. One way to do that is to give a meal to a homeless person. Is it not also important that we support representatives who will fund programs to help that same person out of homelessness? Is it important that we elect officials who know when an emancipation proclamation is necessary or when to declare our independence from tyrannical powers or when to lobby amendments ending slavery? We need governors to be good and to do good.

Christians in the U.S. must engage in politics as a means of doing good and correcting oppression. There are no neutral options in a self-governing society. There is a duty observed or neglected. So use your vote and your voice to do good in the republic.